Embracing the Redemption: An Interview with J. Lawrence Turner

The Rev. J. Lawrence Turner ’06 M.Div. is the 32-year-old senior pastor of Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Memphis, TN. He became the 5,000-member congregation’s minister last year after serving seven years at Community Baptist Church in New Haven, CT.

Turner is a native of Nashville, TN., a graduate of Fisk University (magna cum laude, B.A. in religion and philosophy). At YDS, he was president of the student council and the Yale Black Seminarians, a fellow of the Fund for Theological Education, and a recipient of the H.H. Tweedy Prize for exceptional promise for pastoral leadership. He is pursuing a D.Min. degree in Transformative Leadership at the Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School in Rochester, NY.

Reflections: Is the spiritual quest different today than it was for previous generations?

J. Lawrence Turner: Twenty years ago, young people were questioning structural issues, institutions, and authorities, challenging modes of ministry. Today the question – the quest – goes deeper: Why do I need to be a Christian at all? Why do I need belief? In an age of skepticism, it’s not assumed that you’ll go to church the way your parents did. A lot of churches are having a hard time figuring out how to articulate the faith and defend it in these times.

Our church makes clear statements of faith. My challenge is to translate them to the 21st-century demographic – through teaching, preaching, art, sound bites, and social media.

Reflections: Are contemporary conditions changing the way people form spiritual community?

Turner: People aren’t automatically going to meet as they traditionally did – before church on Sunday morning and at mid-week. As the rule of thumb has it, the larger you get, the smaller you have to become. It’s important to hold people together who are experiencing life together. We have young-people small groups, and they love it. It might be on a week night at an apartment or a coffee shop. They love the flexibility about the way they meet. They are discovering that these ways of deepening faith and sharing with other people aren’t just the thing to do – they make your life better.

Reflections: Are churches rethinking their approaches to spiritual formation?

Turner: I see people at our church embracing the idea of discipleship, accepting the challenge to embody the lifestyle of a disciple of Christ. This means focusing on prayer. Fellowship with believers. Spending time with the Master. Authentic worship. Mission. These involve practical action.

Reflections: Maybe people trust action more than talk now.

Turner: People want to embody Christ in their lives. It’s not just logos but ethos. Character compels belief. And they want to see that in church leadership as well as in their own church participation – live out the ideals of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the prisoners.

In his book Crisis in the Village: Restoring Hope in African American Communities (Fortress, 2007), Robert M. Franklin warns that churches are in a crisis of mission. That’s something we want to address. What engages young people is the effort to put themselves in a position to make a tangible difference.

Our church is adopting two zip codes locally with a commitment to beautification and neighborhood economic renewal. We just sent our first all-millennial mission team to Guatemala. It was a fact-finding trip. They visited schools and churches. They learned about health concerns, the nutritional problems of children. They were transformed by what they saw. They have plans to go back. They want to be of help.

Reflections: You’ve mentioned authenticity. How does that translate at church?

Turner: We script what should happen at worship. We work hard at it. We have meetings about it all week. Yet young people aren’t so concerned with form and structure. They want to experience God in a real way. They’re not looking for perfection from the church but transparency and honesty – “Don’t lie to me. Tell me the truth.”

Intergenerational dialogue needs to happen. The older generation can’t be hypocritical, but they can relate to younger people and tell them: “I’ve been where you’ve been and I’ve made mistakes, but I too have experienced the glory of God.”

Reflections: What makes you hopeful?

Turner: There’s much discussion about the world of social media and how it can consume one’s life. But I have faith in people that ultimately they’ll disengage and be open to what they really need. That’s what the church has always been – countercultural. Here at our church they’re hearing the gospel, but they’re also hearing a challenge to make sacrifices toward a better life. They’re embracing the redemption that gives grace.